Last night, a small group of us meeting Sunday evenings during Lent to discuss Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” found the discussion more lively than usual. That’s because as Lent draws to a close, our group had decided to actually entertain minor changes in parish life as a result of the pope’s injunction to do so.
Resistance from our pastor and pastoral associate was evident. Nonetheless, while neither (perhaps understandably) was willing to exert leadership in this case, both showed faint signs of willingness to be led.
The mild suggestion sparking discussion was the following:
- To celebrate the upcoming beatification of Oscar Romero (Saturday, May 23rd) with a special evening Mass and fiesta (featuring a mariachi band, salsa dancing, and food catered by our local Mexican restaurant).
- To precede the Mass with an hour-long “adult education” session featuring a 15 minute talk on Oscar Romero and liberation theology along with a half-hour documentary on the Salvadoran martyr, and a 15 minute discussion.
- To have the Mass concelebrated with the main celebrant and homilist being Padre Eulices, the clerical leader of our local Hispanic community.
According to the pastor and his associate, the suggestion was highly problematic. After all:
- Didn’t we know that May 23rd is the Vigil of Pentecost? “And I, for one,” the pastor said, “am not willing to substitute something like this for the celebration of Pentecost, one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year.”
- On top of that, “I have Mass in Mt. Vernon (a congregation of fewer than 30 people btw) at 5:00, and I could never get back to Berea by the 6:00 starting time you have here on your schedule.”
- And what about McKee (a congregation of perhaps 15-20 people)? “They surely wouldn’t show up for something like this. They’re very stuck in their ways.”
- “And then there’s the Saturday night crowd! They expect Mass at 7:00. Changes like this would upset them.” (It turned out that the suggested event had taken this into account and had Mass beginning @ the usual 7:00 time).
- “And what about the Hispanic group? They always celebrate Mass at 11:00 on Sunday morning. I’m sure they would resist coming to Mass Saturday evening as this change suggests.”
- “And do you mean to say that there’d be no Sunday Mass at 9:00 – the way we’ve done it all these years?”
- “And why would we spend all that money on a mariachi band? Our Sunday choir along with that of the Hispanic community would be better and would cost no money.”
- “And wouldn’t it be better to have someone from the chancery come to speak to us about Oscar Romero rather than someone from the parish?”
- “So let’s: (1) move the program to Sunday at the usual time, (2) shorten up the presentation about Romero, (3) forget the mariachi band, (4) emphasize Pentecost, and (5) see if we can get some speaker from Lexington to speak about Romero.”
Naturally, the lay group had responses to those clerical objections:
- The themes of Pentecost and Romero’s beatification can quite easily be integrated. They actually complement one another.
- If the pastor could not get back from Mt. Vernon at 6:00, we could move the event’s starting time to 6:30. Or maybe we could (this one time!) just have a single Mass instead of 5 (!) inviting the Mt. Vernon folks to come to this fun party. If they choose not to come, well, it’s a free country.
- Same goes for the McKee community.
- As previously noted, nothing would be changed for the Saturday night crowd in terms of the starting time for their evening Mass.
- The Hispanic community is the most flexible of all. Its members are anxious to integrate with the Anglo community. And Romero is one of them! Surely it wouldn’t be hard to persuade them to come to a party a mariachi band, salsa dancing, and Mexican food.
- If we must have a Sunday morning Mass at 9:00, no problem. On this particular Sunday, the congregation will, no doubt, be smaller (with most having satisfied their “Sunday obligation” the previous night). But is that a problem? In fact, nothing would be hurt by cancelling that Mass as well. (But, of course, cancelling the 9:00 Sunday Mass is not part of the plan.)
- As for the mariachi band . . . We’re talking about a fiesta and illustrating “the joy of the Gospel!” For something worthwhile like that, people are willing to pony up. We could easily raise $1000 to cover an event like this. At least we could float the idea to see.
- In this college community with so many professors and theologians, do we really need someone from the chancery to speak about Romero and liberation theology?
- And why Saturday night instead of Sunday? Because Saturday night is a party night! And (again) we’re talking about the joy of the Gospel.
As you can see, it’s not easy for some to make even minor changes in “what we’ve always done.” For others, change is easy. For instance, Padre Eulices was unfazed when asked to consider altering his schedule for the Romero celebration. “Well,” he said, “I normally have Mass in Richmond at 6:00. But I’ll try to get a substitute. I’ll get back to you. Thanks for asking.”
However, the changes implied in this whole event go much deeper than resistance to a one-off Mass-and-fiesta. It all raises serious questions about parish organizations and the way priests in the new pope’s church spend their time. Among the questions to be addressed in our own community, the following seem most obvious:
- Given the fact that we now have only one pastor (and not the 3 or 4 priests we had when our 3 parishes were founded about 50 years ago), does it really make sense to have 5 Masses (!) each weekend?
- If we must maintain the dubious practice of “servicing” three parishes, why doesn’t our church sponsor the training and ordination of one or more deacons to provide more meaningful communion services (and preaching) at the churches in question? Our community could easily identify and invite good candidates (male & female) with a gift for preaching and pastoral work.
- In fact, for some (the 3 or 4 ex-priests among us) additional training would not be necessary. They could start preaching and presiding over a communion service next Sunday!
- In view of such considerations, shouldn’t we sit down with our pastor and help him brainstorm about less stressful use of his time?
- Hasn’t the moment arrived for constructing a serious strategic plan for the parish involving input from all its members and taking advantage of their much-needed gifts?
As you can see, it’s been a productive Lenten discussion.